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Open Jim: Is the check-engine light on for the Badgers football program?

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When I set up a Twitter poll asking followers to predict how many wins I’d be covering over the weekend, the results indicated to me that fans were being blindly optimistic.

Guess not.

More than 50% of voters thought local teams would go 3-for-3 and that’s exactly what happened: The Brewers beat the Braves in Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series last Friday, the University of Wisconsin football team blanked Illinois the next day and the Green Bay Packers won a wild overtime game at Cincinnati on Sunday.

So much for the Polzin jinx I’ve been hearing so much about. Maybe I should have stuck around American Family Field for Game 2 and followed the Brewers to Atlanta.

State Journal beat reporter Colten Bartholomew and columnist Jim Polzin discuss Jalen Berger's dismissal and UW's matchup with Army

As always, thanks for reading.

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Dan, I’m a little jealous that I didn’t think of this analogy first. I think the check-engine light is the perfect way to describe how we should be viewing this situation.

Is there a lot of overreacting going on by fans? I certainly think so. I’ve got people on my Twitter timeline and in emails calling for Paul Chryst to be fired, and I think that’s ridiculous. He’s done enough in his first 6½ seasons as UW’s coach to earn the right to prove whether this is a bad stretch or something more.

But UW’s nine consecutive losses to ranked opponents and its extended stretch of mediocrity — 10-10 since midway through the 2019 season — is cause for concern. As I’ve said previously, Chryst likely will have some tough decisions to make in the offseason in regards to the makeup of his coaching staff.

What we now are seeing is what happens when you have misses at an important position in consecutive cycles.

It began in 2018 with Nakia Watson, who lasted three years in the program before transferring to Washington State. He’s barely played in his first season with the Cougars.

Julius Davis, a 2019 instate recruit, hasn’t panned out to date and there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever become a major contributor considering he’s at least fifth on the depth chart.

Jalen Berger had all the talent to end that run of misses and offered teases of his potential last season as a true freshman. But the guy who was viewed as UW’s next great back Berger now is out of the program after 1½ seasons.

(By the way, I got a lot of questions about why Berger was dismissed from the program. If you haven't already, check out Colten Bartholomew's story that helps explain why Paul Chryst made the decision he did.)

And that’s why UW finds itself with a starter who transferred from Clemson (Chez Mellusi), a true freshman backup who arrived as a highly touted defensive player (Braelon Allen) and a third back who began his career as a wide receiver and can’t seem to stay healthy (Isaac Guerendo).

That’s not a bad group, but the Badgers are an injury away from being in a world of hurt at a marquee position.

It’s always easy after the fact to criticize recruiting decisions. But I don’t remember anyone saying much when Watson and Davis signed with the Badgers. And the reaction to Berger choosing UW was pure joy. Had he panned out, we’re not having this conversation.

UW swung and missed on some blue-chip prospects in each of those classes. That happens every cycle, and blaming Chryst and his staff for that is silly.

As you mentioned, Chryst and Co. were spoiled by having two great backs early in his UW tenure. Clement rushed for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016, Chryst’s second season. Jonathan Taylor produced a combined 6,174 yards and 50 rushing touchdowns — plus five receiving scores — over the next three seasons.

Allen looks like a keeper, even if he wasn’t projected to be a tailback when he stepped foot on campus. The next step is adding some talent in the next few recruiting cycles so tailback can return to being a position of strength for the program.

Here’s my advice: Hold on to it for another couple weeks.

I’m not saying UW is going to beat Iowa on Oct. 30 in what almost certainly will be the Badgers’ last chance to get a win over a ranked opponent during the regular season. But I want to see how these next two games against Army and Purdue play out to see if UW is trending in the right direction and has a chance to knock off the Hawkeyes.

UW’s turnover-plagued offense going against Iowa’s ball-hawking defense is scary. But I think the Badgers’ defense can keep that game close and the more pressure the Hawkeyes will feel the longer their unbeaten season goes.

I wouldn’t rule out being able to celebrate an upset in two weeks with a cold beer.

The short answer, and I think he’d be the first to admit this: not enough.

I really thought Graham Mertz would take a big step forward this season, and I’ve been wrong about that so far. Take away his dazzling debut in which he went 20 of 21 for 248 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions, and Mertz is 170 of 301 yards for 1,671 yards with six touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his 11 starts since that 2020 opener.

That’s a completion percentage of 56.5, twice as many picks as touchdown passes, 9.8 yards per completion, 5.6 yards per attempt and pass efficiency rating of 101.72.

That’s nowhere close to the production UW needs at that position.

There are flashes — that entire Illinois game last season, two drives late in the first half vs. Michigan two weeks ago, some throws here and there — but Mertz hasn’t been able to put together anything close to a complete performance over his past 11 starts.

Colten Bartholomew brought up this on the podcast this week, but UW might have to think about kicking the tires on the quarterback transfer market this offseason if Mertz doesn’t show some progress over the final seven games of the 2021 campaign. Stay tuned.

I feel better about the UW football team making a bowl game after its 24-0 win at Illinois. It wasn’t so much beating the Fighting Illini — that much was expected — but I thought it was encouraging that the Badgers ran the ball so well in that game. It gives them something to build on as they continue a manageable stretch of the schedule before Iowa visits Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 30.

Remove the Hawkeyes from the equation, and UW needs to win four of these six games: Army, at Purdue, at Rutgers, Northwestern, Nebraska, at Minnesota. I think the Badgers will do that.

And while that will mean playing in a bowl game that is hardly sexy — Music City? Pinstripe? Guaranteed Rate? Quick Lane? — at least it would continue the streak and give UW some developmental practices in December.

As for basketball, I expect this team to be hovering around the NCAA Tournament bubble when March rolls around and truly could see it going either way.

But you asked a question and I’ll answer it: UW will miss the tourney.

My biggest questions are at point guard and center, and the Badgers are going to be young at those spots. I have no doubt that Chucky Hepburn, Steven Crowl and Ben Carlson are going to be good players in time. But none of them has logged significant minutes at this level and all are going to be asked to do so this season.

So option 2 it is.

Last week's performance against Illinois was a big step forward for a much-maligned UW offensive line, but it came with senior right tackle Logan Bruss sidelined by an injury.

A healthy Bruss will be a fixture in that starting group, replacing Tanor Bortolini. But it does appear the other four spots have been solidified, though I'm always hesitant to say that based on how much shuffling there's been on the line.

With a healthy Bruss, it'll look like this from left to right: Tyler Beach, Josh Seltzner, Joe Tippmann, Jack Nelson and Bruss.

I think Joe Krabbenhoft will be leading a program someday. He’s only 34, so there’s plenty of time.

But Krabbbenhoft is sharp and seems to relate well with players. In all my conversations with former players this past summer around the time of the leaked recording story, none of them had anything bad to say about Krabbenhoft.

It’s no secret that Krabbenhoft has done most of the heavy lifting in terms of recruiting at UW since he arrived following the 2015-16 season. He’s always been a tells-it-how-it-is guy, and I think recruits and their families appreciate that.

Bottom line, it wouldn’t shock me if Krabbenhoft is a head coach somewhere in the next five years.

We were allowed to watch a practice Monday, but it’s hard to get much of a read on players because UW didn’t do much five-on-five work.

My educated guess is Jordan Davis is another season away from getting significant minutes. I think Brad Davison, Johnny Davis and Jahcobi Neath will eat up most of the minutes at the 2 and 3 spots.

I’m not sure it’s THE reason Kevin, but it certainly seems to be a reason. Packers coach Matt LaFleur brought up communication issues Monday when he was asked about his team’s struggles in the red zone.

Here’s what he said about the defensive side of the ball: “It really comes down to making sure that everybody is doing their job. I’ve got no issue with what we called down there, but we didn’t execute. You can’t have nine guys doing their job if two guys aren’t doing their job; then it’s tough to stop anybody. When we get all 11 on the same page, make sure communication is on point and then we’ve got to go out there and execute.”

The Packers’ opponents have scored on all 13 trips inside the red zone through five games this season.

Getting reacquainted with people up in Green Bay has been the best part.

I spent the 2010 season on the Packers beat — pretty good team that year, you may remember — and a lot of the guys who were covering the team back then still are around. Jason Wilde and I share an office up there and it’s been great working with him again. And it’s been fun catching up with Rob Demovsky, Bill Huber, Mike Spofford, Wes Hodkiewicz, Tom Silverstein and Pete Dougherty after being away from Lambeau for so long.

This job can be such a grind, but the people you meet along the way is one of the reasons I really enjoy doing it.

Contact Jim Polzin at


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